Staff anxiety the biggest coronavirus challenge for businesses, survey finds

Second People Management and CIPD poll shows employers are concerned about staff wellbeing and employees not being able to work from home during the outbreak

Supporting staff with general anxiety around coronavirus is the main challenge facing most employers as a result of the outbreak, a survey of HR professionals has found.

To explore what employers are doing to tackle the threat posed by coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, People Management and the CIPD have been polling people professionals and asking them about their companies’ responses to the outbreak.

After running an initial survey at the start of this month, People Management ran a second to find out how employers have developed or changed their response as the crisis has unfolded, and will be covering this second poll further over the coming days.

The latest survey, which polled over 390 employers, found nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) of respondents cited general anxiety as their organisation’s main challenge currently.

The next biggest challenges were found to be staff not being able to work from home (60 per cent), and parents being unable to come to work because of school closures (53 per cent).

Dr David Poots, senior occupational health physician at BHSF, said employers needed to recognise that anxiety was an appropriate and proportionate response to the situation. “These are anxious, difficult, unprecedented times and we don’t have any similar experiences to go on so perhaps one of the things to do is acknowledge that people feel anxious and they’re not making a fuss,” he said.

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Uncertainty over things such as the future of employees’ jobs or whether they could expect to be paid during the outbreak, all inevitably contributed to anxiety, Poots highlighted. He said clear communication was, therefore, very important. “Even if it’s bad news, good, clear and frequent communication from your employer really helps,” he said.

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said he was unsurprised that worker anxiety topped employers’ concerns. “You’ve got the combination of a very significant health crisis, where people are concerned about their and their loved one’s health. Then you combine that with a lot of economic anxiety and uncertainty,” he said.

Willmott agreed communication was important. Information vacuums could feed people’s anxiety, he said. Line managers had a particularly important role to play in supporting employees, and HR should ensure managers were having regular video or telephone calls with the people they managed. “The human connection is particularly important at the moment,” Willmott said.

Simon Blake, chief executive of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, said daily check-ins with staff were an opportunity to listen to employees’ concerns and signpost them to further support – “whether that’s HR, a mental health first aider, or an employee assistance programme.” Virtual social sessions, such as online coffee breaks or remote shared activities, were another way of motivating staff and helping them feel connected, he said, citing the example of the online afternoon craft session MHFA England has been running internally for staff.

“As more organisations move to online working, strengthening our human connections is vital. Nurturing them virtually will be key to supporting the nation’s mental health and wellbeing as we come together to tackle the impact of coronavirus,” said Blake. “Now, more than ever, businesses need to be proactive in supporting staff wellbeing.”

Other challenges highlighted by the People Management and CIPD survey included too many staff being ill at once (48 per cent), deciding the best way to respond to the outbreak (41 per cent), and paying staff while the business was closed (39 per cent).

A third (32 per cent) of respondents were worried about paying staff who were self-isolating, while a quarter (24 per cent) said staff not isolating when they should be presented a challenge.

Willmott said employers needed to think about how business-critical functions could operate on minimum staffing levels, and how they could use staff with transferable skills to help support areas of the business under pressure. “Do you need to provide training for other staff who might need to fill in temporarily for absent colleagues in other areas of the business?” he said.

“A lot of organisations seem to have been caught very flat-footed, and not really in a position to be agile and respond in an optimal way, at the moment,” he said.